MANSFIELD: More on Cleveland Rising

Photo by Anastasia Pantsios

The November 13-19 edition of Scene contained a brilliant 5,000 word article by senior writer Sam Allard subtitled “Why Cleveland Rising Was Doomed to Fail.” I, on the other hand, lazily dashed off a mere 400-word, tantalizingly brief tidbit that posed the query “Will Cleveland Rise?”

In spite of the vast difference between the word counts of our two articles, our intentions were in alignment: We both sincerely want to see Cleveland succeed, but we also are in alignment in our belief that utilizing the “Appreciative Inquiry” (A.I.) method of problem solving simply will not and cannot work in achieving the stated goal of “accelerating economic growth, equity and opportunity” here in Cleveland.

If the good folks heading up Cleveland Rising can get past the sometimes biting sarcasm that is a hallmark of Allard’s writing, focus instead on the substance of his legitimate criticisms, and make some adjustments to their methodology, the chances of the enterprise being ultimately successful will be greatly enhanced. But make no mistake, under even the best of circumstances the lofty — and indeed, worthwhile — goals set forth by the Cleveland Rising team will be difficult to achieve. If they weren’t so damn difficult and intractable the problems would have been solved by now.

In an 1857 speech Frederick Douglass boldly stated, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Therein lays the crux of the problem. Cleveland Rising is attempting to address inequities via requests, not by demands.

A.I. does an excellent job of addressing problems in certain environments. As Allard wrote, “To clarify once again, Appreciative Inquiry is a corporate relations or management tool designed for executives struggling with disengaged or inefficient underlings. It’s a model with local roots, birthed in Cleveland in the 1980s when CWRU’s David Cooperrider and Ron Fry ‘discovered the power of positive inquiry for igniting innovation and whole-system change.’ It’s what’s called an ‘asset-based’ model for organizational thinking, and its whole point is bringing together large numbers of people to talk about their strengths and dream big dreams and so forth.”

However, the settings where A.I. has been utilized successfully — organizations like Apple and the U.S. Navy — all have one thing in common: these environments can be coercive in nature when necessary. The participants in those types of settings have to get with the program pretty much as presented by the facilitators, while of course being able to offer commentary or suggestions. But the goal in those settings is to alter the internal culture of the organization, whereas the goal of Cleveland Rising is to alter the broader, external culture, something that has proven extraordinarily difficult to accomplish here in America.

In the essentially closed cultures of Apple or the U.S. Navy, when it’s announced that the A.I. team is coming in to assist in solving whatever problem exists, attendance at the sessions is pretty much mandatory. Not so with Cleveland Rising. For the most part, only those who already believed in the stated goals of fairness and equity bothered to attend the event. But here’s the crucial point: For the most part, the folks that have the power to effectuate the changes to society and culture — to implement the goals of economic growth and equity that Cleveland Rising wishes to promote — stay away from such gatherings in droves.

The problems of inequality and lack of financial growth are the domain of bankers, not the social service agencies and nonprofits that made up most of the attendees at Cleveland Rising. And historically, the bankers who have not willingly quit redlining neighborhoods or coming up with specious reasons why they can’t make loans to minority business enterprises never show up. They are fearful of hard questions.

So if the folks behind Cleveland Rising are serious about accomplishing the stated mission, they first have to honestly identify the problem and then ask themselves if they are truly willing to call out the folks and institutions that are at the root of it. Are they ready to make bold statements regarding the pervasiveness of the racism that permeates our culture?

While I did attend the first day of the summit, personally, I didn’t need to attend all three days to discern what has been keeping a certain segment of the population economically down here in Cleveland. I’ve lived it virtually every day of my adult life. Indeed, I — like many other blacks that attempt to rise every day — am an expert on the subject. What’s needed is not more examination of the issues, but a concerted and determined effort to finally go public with the names of the people and institutions that are blocking progress via their business practices. And yes, even the threat of lawsuits to rectify the problems, that’s just about the only thing that has worked in the past.

Until and unless the Cleveland Rising folks are willing to engage in playing hard ball not much of anything is going to happen. Reread the Frederick Douglass quote.

Are the folks behind Cleveland Rising willing to make such demands here in Cleveland? Do they have the courage of their convictions? Or is the effort merely going to devolve into a muddled debating society so the establishment can, in the future, say, “Oh well, you know we tried to help THOSE people back in 2019, but you know it’s just about impossible.”

Sure it’s impossible — when you don’t go about it right.

From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsIn

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